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Hard times for CAR journalists

Delphine Schiltz / shMay 2, 2014

The power struggle in Central African Republic and the violence between Christian and Muslim militias hamper the work of the country's journalists. Providing up-to-date, objective reporting is a major challenge.

People in CAR looking at newspaper sheets
Image: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

No radio or TV news, no newspapers for sale. That was the situation a year ago on the "Day without Media," initiated by journalists in Central African Republic (CAR) in response to the plundering of their offices and threats they received following a coup in March 2013. Rebels of the predominantly Muslim alliance Seleka had taken control of the capital Bangui and toppled President Francois Bozize. Chaos and violence spread rapidly throughout the country. There was a religious element to much of the violence which included clashes between the Muslim Seleka rebels and the self-proclaimed Christian anti-balaka militias.

Editorial offices plundered

Despite international support from African and French peacekeepers, as well as a new government, the situation in CAR has not improved more than a year since the coup. Some 2.2 million people - half the population – is dependent on humanitarian aid. The United Nations and human rights organizations have been warning for months that ethnic cleansing is being carried out.

A CAR woman listening to a radio
People in CAR are eager for up-to-date, reliable informationImage: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

Among those suffering from the ongoing crisis situation are the country's journalists who often lack the equipment they need for their work. Their offices are badly in need of repair, the damage caused by plunderers is clearly visible. "When Seleka arrived, our newspaper's main office was plundered and laid waste," recalls Maturin Momet, publisher of the daily paper "Le Confident" which is published in the capital Bangui. "We have tried to replace the most important parts of our equipment from our own pockets. Everything was destroyed," Momet told DW. "It's tough with the present economic situation, but we do what we can with the means at our disposal."

In order to provide more than just basic coverage, radio stations or newspapers in CAR also broadcast or print material from foreign media. Not only do their own teams of reporters not have the money to cover everything that is happening in the country but their safety can also not be guaranteed. It is often easier for foreign journalists to move about in the country. "Almost all the foreign colleagues here are well protected," said Agalo Lassy, a photographer with the CAR agency Agence Centrafrique Presse. "They have the money, they can travel and work without too much difficulty." Lassy is convinced that if the agency he works for had the same amount of money, then CAR journalists could also do a better job and take more pride in their output.

No reward for objective reporting

Only few NGOs support the media in CAR. Local radio stations rely to a large extent on their listeners. Sometimes they also receive supoort from armed militia groups, Narcisse Jobert told DW. Jobert works for Radio Baragbake in the town of Bria, some 500 kilometres (311 miles) from the capital. He says the station depends on supplies from the population, such as oil from Seleka. "That's the only way we can carry on broadcasting," he said, adding that former Seleka fighters in the region also protected the station.

CAR radio journalists at work
CAR journalists say their foreign colleagues are better equipped and better protectedImage: DW/Simone Schlindwein

Those working for larger media houses sometimes receive an envelope full of money from influential personalities, said another journalist who wanted to remain anonymous. For publisher Maturin Momet this was always so. "All those in power want to hear hymns of praise from us." But the support is unfairly distributed. "Small papers which back those in power receive support while those who do good and objective work are left to fend for themselves."

Danger of self-censorship

In April 2014, the government of interim president Catherine Samba-Panza had the publishers of two daily papers arrested. The reason given was defamation. The paper "Palmares" had described her as "cancre," a word that can be understood to mean "lazy person." The second paper "Peuple" accused Samba-Panza of having used unfair measures to come to power. The decision to arrest the two publishers (who were later released) was accepted by most CAR journalists but there was also criticism that such cases would lead to self-censorship in the media.

Catherine Samba-Panza
Interim President Samba-Panza had journalists arrested for allegedly insulting herImage: Reuters

Narcisse Jobert from the local radio station in Bria warns that "anyone talking about politics on local radio in this country is putting himself at risk." His Baragbe station takes a clear line. "We want to sensitize the population and spread peace and reconciliation. That is all. It is our task to ask questions and provide advice so that peace returns." Other Central African media also want to play a role in bringing peace and reuniting their divided country. But there are still many obstacles in their way.